Lying at the center of the Balkan Peninsula, Kosovo harbors a diversity of ecosystems and conditions, which have favored processes leading to the existence of many endemic and rare species. In the past few years, several new species of aquatic insects have been discovered from the small Balkan country, making it unique in terms of biodiversity. Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the Balkans, many of these ecosystems have deteriorated heavily.
A team of scientists from Kosovo, led by Professor Halil Ibrahimi of the University of Prishtina, recently found a new species of aquatic insect, a caddisfly, from the Sharr Mountains in Kosovo, and named it Potamophylax humoinsapiens.
The species epithet humoinsapiens is a combination of two Latin words, “humo”, which in English means “to cover with soil, to bury,” and “insapiens,” meaning “unwise”. The researchers explain this name refers to the unwise and careless treatment of the habitats of the new species: hydropower plant, illegal logging and pollution have greatly degraded the area in the past years. “In some segments, whole parts of the Lepenc River are “buried” in large pipes,” they write in their study, which was published in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.
“The species name ‘humoinsapiens’ ironically sounds like Homo insapiens, and this new species is right in calling us unwise,” thinks Prof. Ibrahimi. “With its actions, humankind has caused the extinction of many species of insects and other organisms during the past decades and has degraded greatly all known ecosystems in the planet. The debate on questioning wise nature of humans is already ongoing.
In the past few years, Professor Halil Ibrahimi and his team have found several new species of aquatic insects from the Balkans, Middle East and North Africa. In an attempt to raise awareness for this group of vulnerable creatures, endangered greatly by human activities, the team of scientists has given their species unique names. One of their previous discoveries was named Potamophylax coronavirus in order to raise the attention to the silent and dangerous “pandemic” humans have caused in freshwater ecosystems in the Balkans.
“By combining classical taxonomy and modern molecular analysis techniques with the unique names, we are making insect species talk to our collective consciousness. It is in humankind’s capacity to earn the name Homo sapiens again,” the researchers conclude.
Ibrahimi H, Bilalli A, Gashi A, Grapci Kotori L, Slavevska Stamenkovič V, Geci D (2023) Potamophylax humoinsapiens sp. n. (Trichoptera, Limnephilidae), a new species from the Sharr Mountains, Republic of Kosovo. Biodiversity Data Journal 11: e97969. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.11.e97969
While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union.
Expertise tends to be particularly poor in the countries with the richest biodiversity, while taxonomists are predominantly male and ageing
While insect populations continue to decline, taxonomic expertise in Europe is at serious risk, confirms data obtained within the European Red List of Insect Taxonomists, a recent study commissioned by the European Union.
Scientists who specialise in the identification and discovery of insect species – also known as insect taxonomists – are declining across Europe, highlights the newly released report by CETAF, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Pensoft. The authors of this report represent different perspectives within biodiversity science, including natural history and research institutions, nature conservation, academia and scientific publishing.
Despite the global significance of its taxonomic collections, Europe has been losing taxonomic expertise at such a rate that, at the moment nearly half (41.4%) of the insect orders are not covered by a sufficient number of scientists. If only EU countries are counted, the number looks only slightly more positive (34.5%). Even the four largest insect orders: beetles (Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), flies (Diptera) and wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (Hymenoptera) are only adequately ‘covered’ in a fraction of the countries.
To obtain details about the number, location and productivity of insect taxonomists, the team extracted information from thousands of peer-reviewed research articles published in the last decade, queried the most important scientific databases and reached out to over fifty natural science institutions and their networks. Furthermore, a dedicated campaign reached out to individual researchers through multiple communication channels. As a result, more than 1,500 taxonomists responded by filling in a self-declaration survey to provide information about their personal and academic profile, qualification and activities.
Then, the collected information was assessed against numerical criteria to classify the scientists into categories similar to those used by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. In the European List of Insect Taxonomists, these range from Eroded Capacity (equivalent to Extinct) to Adequate Capacity (equivalent to Least Concern). The assessment was applied to the 29 insect orders (i.e. beetles, moths and butterflies etc.) to figure out which insect groups the society, conservation practitioners and decision-makers need not be concerned at this point.
On a country level, the results showed that Czechia, Germany and Russia demonstrate the most adequate coverage of insect groups. Meanwhile, Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Luxembourg, Latvia, Ireland and Malta turned out to be the ones with insufficient number of taxonomists.
In most cases, the availability of experts seems to correlate to GDP, as wealthiest countries tend to invest more in their scientific institutions.
What is particularly worrying is that the lack of taxonomic expertise is more evident in the countries with the greatest species diversity. This trend may cause even more significant problems in the knowledge and conservation of these species, further aggravating the situation. Thus, the report provides further evidence about a global pattern where the countries richest in biodiversity are also the ones poorest in financial and human resources.
Other concerning trends revealed in the new report are that the community of taxonomists is also ageing and – especially in the older groups – male-dominated (82%).
“One reason to have fewer young taxonomists could be due to limited opportunities for professional training (…), and the fact that not all professional taxonomists provide it, as a significant number of taxonomists are employed by museums and their opportunities for interaction with university students is probably not optimal. Gender bias is very likely caused by multiple factors, including fewer opportunities for women to be exposed to taxonomic research and gain an interest, unequal offer of career opportunities and hiring decisions. A fair-playing field for all genders will be crucial to address these shortcomings and close the gap.”
comments Ana Casino, CETAF’s Executive Director.
The European Red List of Taxonomists concludes with practical recommendations concerning strategic, science and societal priorities, addressed to specific decision-makers.
The authors give practical examples and potential solutions in support of their call to action.
For instance, in order to develop targeted and sustainable funding mechanisms to support taxonomy, they propose the launch of regular targeted Horizon Europe calls to study important insect groups for which taxonomic capacity has been identified to be at a particularly high risk of erosion.
To address specific gaps in expertise – such as the ones reported in the publication from Romania – a country known for its rich insect diversity, yet poor in taxonomic expertise – the consortium proposes the establishment of a natural history museum or entomological research institute that is well-fitted to serve as a taxonomic facility.
Amongst the scientific recommendations, the authors propose measures to ensure better recognition of taxonomic work at a multidisciplinary level. The scientific community, including disciplines that use taxonomic research, such as molecular biology, medicine and agriculture – need to embrace universal standards and rigorous conduct for the correct citation of scientific publications by insect taxonomists.
Societal engagement is another important call. “It is pivotal to widely raise awareness of the value and impact of taxonomy and the work of taxonomists. We must motivate young generations to join the scientific community” points Prof. Lyubomir Penev, Managing Director of Pensoft.
“Understanding taxonomy is a key to understanding the extinction risk of species. If we strategically target the gaps in expert capacity that this European Red List identifies, we can better protect biodiversity and support the well-being and livelihoods of our societies. With the climate crisis at hand, there is no time left to waste,”
added David Allen from the IUCN Red List team.
“As a dedicated supporter of the IUCN Red List, I am inspired by this call to strengthen the capacity, guided by evidence and proven scientific methods. However, Europe has much more scientific capacity than most biodiversity-rich regions of the world. So, what this report particularly highlights is the need for massively increasing investment in scientific discovery, and building taxonomic expertise, around the world,”
said Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
In an age where we more than ever need to appreciate and preserve the magnificent biodiversity inhabiting the Earth, we decided to go for a lighter and fun take on the work of taxonomists that often goes unnoticed by the public.
From the ocean depths surrounding Indonesia to the foliage of the native forests of Príncipe Island and into the soils of Borneo, we started with 16 species described as new to science in journals published by Pensoft over the years.
Out of these most amazing creatures, over the past several weeks we sought to find who’s got the greatest fandom by holding a poll on Twitter (you can follow it further down here or via #NewSpeciesShowdown).
While we need to admit that we ourselves expected to crown an animal as the crowd-favourite, we take the opportunity to congratulate the botanists amongst our fans for the well-deserved win of Nepenthes pudica (see the species description)!
Find more about the curious one-of-a-kind pitcher plant in this blog post, where we announced its discovery following the new species description in PhytoKeys in June 2022:
What’s perhaps even more curious, is that there is only one species EVER described in a Pensoft-published journal that has so far triggered more tweets than the pitcher plant, and that species is the animal that has ended up in second place in the New Species Showdown: a tiny amphibian living in Peru, commonly known as the the Amazon Tapir Frog (Synapturanus danta).Which brings us once again to the influence of botanists in taxonomic research.
Read more about its discovery in the blog post from February 2022:
Another thing that struck us during the tournament was that there was only one species described in our flagship journal in systematic journal ZooKeys: the supergiant isopod Bathynomus raksasa, that managed to fight its way to the semi-finals, where it lost against S. danta.
This makes us especially proud with our diverse and competitive journal portfolio full of titles dedicated to biodiversity and taxonomic research!
Twice a week, @Pensoft would announce a match between two competing species on Twitter using the hashtag #NewSpeciesShowdown, where everyone could vote in the poll for their favourie.
This competition is for entertainment purposes only. As it was tremendously tough to narrow the list down to only sixteen species, we admit that we left out a lot of spectacular creatures.
To ensure fairness and transparency, we made the selection based on the yearly Altmetric data, which covers articles in our journals published from 2010 onwards and ranks the publications according to their online mentions from across the Web, including news media, blogs and social networks.
We did our best to diversify the list as much as possible in terms of taxonomic groups. However, due to the visual-centric nature of social media, we gave preference to immediately attractive species.
(in chronological order)
Round 2 – Quarter-finals
Round 3 – Semi-finals
But why did we hold the tournament right now?
If you have gone to the Pensoft website at any point in 2022, visited our booth at a conference, or received a newsletter from any of our journals, by this time, you must be well aware that in 2022 – more precisely, on 25 December – we turned 30. And we weren’t afraid to show it!
Indeed, 30 is not that big of a number, as many of us adult humans can confirm. Yet, we take pride in reminiscing about what we’ve done over the last three decades.
Long story short, we wanted to do something special and fun to wrap up our anniversary year. While we have been active in various areas, including development of publishing technology concerning open and FAIR access and linkage for research outcomes and underlying data; and multiple EU-supported scientific projects, we have always been associated with our biodiversity journal portfolio.
Besides, who doesn’t like to learn about the latest curious creature that has evaded scientific discovery throughout human history up until our days? 😉
Legumes are a group of plants that include soybeans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts and lentils. They are a significant source of protein, fibre, carbohydrates, and minerals in our diet and some, like the cowpea, are resistant to droughts.
The project’s outcomes were published in a data paper in the Biodiversity Data Journal. Within the project, the digitisation team aimed to collectively digitise non-type herbarium material from the legume family. This includes rosewood trees (Dalbergia), padauk trees (Pterocarpus) and the Phaseolinae subtribe that contains many of the beans cultivated for human and animal food.
Guinea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar
Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, New Guinea and India
Southern and Central American
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil
The legume groups: Dalbergia, Pterocarpus and Phaseolinae,were chosen for digitisation to support the development of dry beans as a sustainable and resilient crop, and to aid conservation and sustainable use of rosewood and padauk trees. Some of these beans, especially cow pea and pigeon pea, are sustainable and resilient crops, as they can be grown in poor-quality soils and are drought stress resistant. This makes them particularly suitable for agricultural production where the growing of other crops would be difficult.
While there have been collaborative efforts between herbaria in the past, these have tended to prioritise digitisation of type specimens: the example specimens for which a species is named.
Searching for beans
This collection was digitised by creating an inventory record for each specimen, attaching images of each herbarium sheet, and then transcribing more data and georeferencing the specimens, providing an accurate locality in space and time for their collection.
We originally had four months and three members of staff to digitise over 11,000 specimens. The Covid-19 lockdown was ironically rather lucky for this project as it enabled us to have more time to transcribe and georeference all of the records.
say the researchers behind the digitisation project.
“We were able to assign country-level data to 10,857 out of the total number of 11,222 records. We were also able to transcribe the collectors’ names from the majority of our specimen labels (10,879 out of 11,222). Only 770 out of the 2,226 individuals identified during this project collected their specimens in ODA listed countries. The highest contributors were: Richard Beddome (130 specimens), Charles Clarke (110), Hans Schlieben (98) and Nathaniel Wallich (79). The breakdown of records by ODA country can be seen in the chart below. “
From our data, we can see the peak decade of collection was the 1930s, with almost half (4,583 specimens or 49,43%) collected between 1900 and 1950 (Fig. 10).
This peak can be attributed to three of our most prolific collectors: Arthur Kerr, John Gossweiler and Georges Le Testu, all of whom were most active in the 1930s. The oldest specimen (BM013713473) was collected by Mark Catesby (1683-1749) in the Bahamas in 1726.
Both the Pterocarpus and Dalbergia genera include species that are used as expensive good quality timber that is prone to illegal logging. Many species such as Pterocarpus tinctorius are also listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. By releasing this new resource of information on all these plants from three of the biggest herbaria in the world, we can share this datа with the people who are taking care of biodiversity in these countries. The data can be used to identify hotspots, where the tree is naturally growing and protect these areas. These data would also allow much closer attention to be paid to areas that could be targets for illegal logging activity.
A new species of owl has just been described from Príncipe Island, part of the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa. Scientists were first able to confirm its presence in 2016, although suspicions of its occurrence gained traction from 1998, and testimonies from local people suggesting its existence could be traced back as far as 1928.
The new owl species was described in the open-access journal ZooKeys based on multiple lines of evidence such as morphology, plumage colour and pattern, vocalisations, and genetics. Data was gathered and processed by an international team led by Martim Melo (CIBIO and Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto), Bárbara Freitas (CIBIO and the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences) and Angelica Crottini (CIBIO).
The bird is now officially known as the Principe Scops-Owl, or Otus bikegila.
“Otus” is the generic name given to a group of small owls sharing a common history, commonly called scops-owls. They are found across Eurasia and Africa and include such widespread species as the Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus scops) and the African Scops-Owl (Otus senegalensis).
The scientists behind the discovery further explain that the species epithet “bikegila” was chosen in homage of Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, nicknamed Bikegila – a former parrot harvester from Príncipe Island and now a ranger of its natural park.
“The discovery of the Principe Scops-Owl was only possible thanks to the local knowledge shared by Bikegila and by his unflinching efforts to solve this long-time mystery,” the researchers say. “As such, the name is also meant as an acknowledgment to all locally-based field assistants who are crucial in advancing the knowledge on the biodiversity of the world.”
In the wild, the easiest way to recognise one would be its unique call – in fact, it was one of the main clues leading to its discovery.
“Otus bikegila‘s unique call is a short “tuu” note repeated at a fast rate of about one note per second, reminiscent of insect calls. It is often emitted in duets, almost as soon as the night has fallen,” Martim Melo explains.
The entire Principe Island was extensively surveyed to determine the distribution and population size of the new species. Results, published in the journal Bird Conservation International, show that the Principe Scops-Owl is found only in the remaining old-growth native forest of Príncipe in the uninhabited southern part of the island. There, it occupies an area of about 15 km2, apparently due to a preference for lower elevations. In this small area (about four times the size of Central Park), the densities of the owl are relatively high, with the population estimated at around 1000-1500 individuals.
Nevertheless, because all individuals of the species occur in this single and very small location (of which a part will be affected in the near future by the construction of a small hydro-electric dam), researchers have proposed that the species should be classified as ‘Critically Endangered’, the highest threat level on the IUCN Red List. This recommendation must still be evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Monitoring the population will be essential to get more precise estimates of its size and follow its trends. For this purpose, a survey protocol relying on the deployment of automatic recording units and AI to retrieve the data from these has been designed and successfully tested.
“The discovery of a new species that is immediately evaluated as highly threatened illustrates well the current biodiversity predicament”, the researchers say. “On a positive note, the area of occurrence of the Principe Scops-Owl is fully included within the Príncipe Obô Natural Park, which will hopefully help secure its protection.”
Thisis the eighth known species of bird endemic to Príncipe, further highlighting the unusually high level of bird endemism for this island of only 139 km2.
Even though a new species of scops-owl was just described from Príncipe, genetic data indicated that the island was, surprisingly, likely the first in the Gulf of Guinea to be colonised by a species of scops-owl.
“Although it may seem odd for a bird species to remain undiscovered for science for so long on such a small island, this is by no means an isolated case when it comes to owls,” the researchers state. “For example, the Anjouan Scops-Owl was rediscovered in 1992, 106 years after its last observation, on Anjouan Island (also known as Ndzuani) in the Comoro Archipelago, and the Flores Scops-Owl was rediscovered in 1994, 98 years after the previous report.”
“The discovery of a new bird species is always an occasion to celebrate and an opportunity to reach out to the general public on the subject of biodiversity,” says Martim Melo. “In this age of human-driven extinction, a major global effort should be undertaken to document what may soon not be anymore,” he and his team state in their paper.
“Birds are likely the best studied animal group. As such, the discovery of a new bird species in the 21st century underscores both the actuality of field-based explorations aiming at describing biodiversity, and how such curiosity-driven endeavour is more likely to succeed when coupled with local ecological knowledge, the participation of keen amateur naturalists, and persistence,” they add.
They believe that this “new wave of exploration, carried out by professionals and amateurs alike”, will help rekindle the link to the natural world, which will be essential to help revert the global biodiversity crisis.
Melo M, Freitas B, Verbelen P, da Costa SR, Pereira H, Fuchs J, Sangster G, Correia MN, de Lima RF, Crottini A (2022) A new species of scops-owl (Aves, Strigiformes, Strigidae, Otus) from Príncipe Island (Gulf of Guinea, Africa) and novel insights into the systematic affinities within Otus. ZooKeys 1126: 1-54. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1126.87635
For the 37th time, experts from across the world to share and discuss the latest developments surrounding biodiversity data and how they are being gathered, used, shared and integrated across time, space and disciplines.
Between 17th and 21st October, about 400 scientists and experts took part in a hybrid meeting dedicated to the development, use and maintenance of biodiversity data, technologies, and standards across the world.
For the 37th time, the global scientific and educational association Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG) brought together experts from all over the globe to share and discuss the latest developments surrounding biodiversity data and how they are being gathered, used, shared and integrated across time, space and disciplines.
This was the first time the event happened in a hybrid format. It was attended by 160 people on-site, while another 235 people joined online.
“It’s wonderful to be in the Balkans and Bulgaria for our Biodiversity Information and Standards (TDWG) 2022 conference! Everyone’s been so welcoming and thoughtfully engaged in conversations about biodiversity information and how we can all collaborate, contribute and benefit,”
“Our TDWG mission is to create, maintain and promote the use of open, community-driven standards to enable sharing and use of biodiversity data for all,”
“We are proud to have been selected to be the hosts of this year’s TDWG annual conference and are definitely happy to have joined and observed so many active experts network and share their know-how and future plans with each other, so that they can collaborate and make further progress in the way scientists and informaticians work with biodiversity information,”
said Pensoft’s founder and CEO Prof. Lyubomir Penev.
“As a publisher of multiple globally renowned scientific journals and books in the field of biodiversity and ecology, at Pensoft we assume it to be our responsibility to be amongst the first to implement those standards and good practices, and serve as an example in the scholarly publishing world. Let me remind you that it is the scientific publications that present the most reliable knowledge the world and science has, due to the scrutiny and rigour in the review process they undergo before seeing the light of day,”
In a nutshell, the main task and dedication of the TDWG association is to develop and maintain standards and data-sharing protocols that support the infrastructures (e.g., The Global Biodiversity Information Facility – GBIF), which aggregate and facilitate use of these data, in order to inform and expand humanity’s knowledge about life on Earth.
It is the goal of everyone volunteering their time and expertise to TDWG to enable the scientists interested in the world’s biodiversity to do their work efficiently and in a manner that can be understood, shared and reused by others. After all, biodiversity data underlie everything we know about the natural world.
If there are optimised and universal standards in the way researchers store and disseminate biodiversity data, all those biodiversity scientists will be able to find, access and use the knowledge in their own work much more easily. As a result, they will be much better positioned to contribute new knowledge that will later be used in nature and ecosystem conservation by key decision-makers.
On Monday, the event opened with welcoming speeches by Deborah Paul and Prof. Lyubomir Penev in their roles of the Chair of TDWG and the main host of this year’s conference, respectively.
The opening ceremony continued with a keynote speech by Prof. Pavel Stoev, Director of the Natural History Museum of Sofia and co-host of TDWG 2022.
He walked the participants through the fascinating biodiversity of Bulgaria, but also the worrying trends in the country associated with declining taxonomic expertise.
He finished his talk with a beam of hope by sharing about the recently established national unit of DiSSCo, whose aim – even if a tad too optimistic – is to digitise one million natural history items in four years, of which 250,000 with photographs. So far, one year into the project, the Bulgarian team has managed to digitise more than 32,000 specimens and provide images to 10,000 specimens.
The plenary session concluded with a keynote presentation by renowned ichthyologist and biodiversity data manager Dr. Richard L. Pyle, who is also a manager of ZooBank – the key international database for newly described species.
In his talk, he highlighted the gaps in the ways taxonomy is being used, thereby impeding biodiversity research and cutting off a lot of opportunities for timely scientific progress.
“But we do not have easy access to much of this information because the different databases are not well integrated. Taxonomy offers us the best opportunity to connect this information together, to answer important questions about biodiversity that we have never been able to answer before. The reason meetings like this are so important is that they bring people together to discuss ways of using modern informatics to greatly increase the power of the data we already have, and prioritise how we fill the gaps in data that exist. Taxonomy, and especially taxonomic data integration, is a very important part of the solution.”
Pyle also commented on the work in progress at ZooBank ten years into the platform’s existence and its role in the next (fifth) edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which is currently being developed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).
“We already know that ZooBank will play a more important role in the next edition of the Code than it has for these past ten years, so this is exactly the right time to be planning new services for ZooBank. Improvements at ZooBank will include things like better user-interfaces on the web to make it easier and faster to use ZooBank, better data services to make it easier for publishers to add content to ZooBank as part of their publication workflow, additional information about nomenclature and taxonomy that will both support the next edition of the Code, and also help taxonomists get their jobs done more efficiently and effectively. Conferences like the TDWG one are critical for helping to define what the next version of ZooBank will look like, and what it will do.”
During the week, the conference participants had the opportunity to enjoy a total of 140 presentations; as well as multiple social activities, including a field trip to Rila Monastery and a traditional Bulgarian dinner.
While going about the conference venue and field trip localities, the attendees were also actively uploading their species observations made during their stay in Bulgaria on iNaturalist in a TDWG2022-dedicated BioBlitz. The challenge concluded with a total of 635 observations and 228 successfully identified species.
“Biodiversity provides the support systems for all life on Earth. Yet the natural world is in peril, and we face biodiversity and climate emergencies. The consequences of these include accelerating extinction, increased risk from zoonotic disease, degradation of natural capital, loss of sustainable livelihoods in many of the poorest yet most biodiverse countries of the world, challenges with food security, water scarcity and natural disasters, and the associated challenges of mass migration and social conflicts.
Solutions to these problems can be found in the data associated with natural science collections. DiSSCo is a partnership of the institutions that digitise their collections to harness their potential. By bringing them together in a distributed, interoperable research infrastructure, we are making them physically and digitally open, accessible, and usable for all forms of research and innovation.
At present rates, digitising all of the UK collection – which holds more than 130 million specimens collected from across the globe and is being taken care of by over 90 institutions – is likely to take many decades, but new technologies like machine learning and computer vision are dramatically reducing the time it will take, and we are presently exploring how robotics can be applied to accelerate our work.”
In his turn, Dr Donat Agosti, CEO and Managing director at Plazi – a not-for-profit organisation supporting and promoting the development of persistent and openly accessible digital taxonomic literature – said:
At the closing plenary session, Gail Kampmeier – TDWG Executive member and one of the first zoologists to join TDWG in 1996 – joined via Zoom to walk the conference attendees through the 37-year history of the association, originally named the Taxonomic Databases Working Group, but later transformed to Biodiversity Information Standards, as it expanded its activities to the whole range of biodiversity data.
Then, in the final talk of the session, Deborah Paul took to the stage to present the progress and key achievements by the association from 2022.
Launched in 2017 on the Pensoft’s publishing platform ARPHA, the journal provides the quite unique and innovative opportunity to have both abstracts and full-length research papers published in a modern, technologically-advanced scholarly journal. In her speech, Deborah Paul reminded that BISS journal welcomes research articles that demonstrate the development or application of new methods and approaches in biodiversity informatics in the form of case studies.
Amongst the achievements of TDWG and its community, a special place was reserved for the Horizon 2020-funded BiCIKL project (abbreviation for Biodiversity Community Integrated Knowledge Library), involving many of the association’s members.
Having started in 2021, the 3-year project, coordinated by Pensoft, brings together 14 partnering institutions from 10 countries, and 15 biodiversity under the common goal to create a centralised place to connect all key biodiversity data by interlinking a total of 15 research infrastructures and their databases.
In fact, following the week-long TDWG 2022 conference in Sofia, a good many of the participants set off straight for another Bulgarian city and another event hosted by Pensoft. The Second General Assembly of BiCIKL took place between 22nd and 24th October in Plovdiv.
You can also explore highlights and live tweets from TDWG 2022 on Twitter via #TDWG2022.
Worldwide, natural history institutions house billions of physical objects in their collections, they create and maintain data about these items, and they share their data with aggregators such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), Genbank and the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA).
Even though these data often include the names of the people who collected or identified each object, such statements may be ambiguous, as the names frequently lack any globally unique, machine-readable concept of their shared identity.
Despite the data being available online, barriers exist to effectively use the information about who collects or provides the expertise to identify the collection objects. People have similar names, change their name over the course of their lifetime (e.g. through marriage), or there may be variability introduced through the label transcription process itself (e.g. local look-up lists).
As a result, researchers and collections staff often spend a lot of time deducing who is the person or people behind unknown collector strings while collating or tidying natural history data. The uncertainty about a person’s identity hampers research, hinders the discovery of expertise, and obstructs the ability to give attribution or credit for work performed.
Disambiguation activities: the act of churning strings into verifiable things using all available evidence – need not be done in isolation. In addition to presenting a workflow on how to disambiguate people in collections, we also make the case that working in collaboration with colleagues and the general public presents new opportunities and introduces new efficiencies. There is tacit knowledge everywhere.
More often than not, data about people involved in biodiversity research are scattered across different digital platforms. However, with linking information sources to each other by using person identifiers, we can better trace the connections in these networks, so that we can weave a more interoperable narrative about every actor.
That said, inconsistent naming conventions or lack of adequate accreditation often frustrate the realization of this vision. This sliver of natural history could be churned to gold with modest improvements in long-term funding for human resources, adjustments to digital infrastructure, space for the physical objects themselves alongside their associated documents, and sufficient training on how to disambiguate people’s names.
The process of properly disambiguating those who have contributed to natural history collections takes time.
The disambiguation process involves the extra challenge of trying to deduce “who is who” for legacy data, compared to undertaking this activity for people alive today. Retrospective disambiguation can require considerable detective work, especially for scarcely known people or if the community has a different naming convention. Provided the results of this effort are well-communicated and openly shared, mercifully, it need only be done once.
At the core of our research is the question of how to solve the issue of assigning proper credit.
In our recent Methods paper, we discuss several methods for this, as well as available routes for making records available online that include not only the names of people expressed as text, but additionally twinned with their unique, resolvable identifiers.
First and foremost, we should maintain our own public biographical data by making full use of ORCID. In addition to preserving our own scientific legacy and that of the institutions that employ us, we have a responsibility to avoid generating unnecessary disambiguation work for others.
For legacy data, where the people connected to the collections are deceased, Wikidata can be used to openly document rich bibliographic and demographic data, each statement with one or more verifiable references. Wikidata can also act as a bridge to link other sources of authority such as VIAF or ORCID identifiers. It has many tools and services to bulk import, export, and to query information, making it well-suited as a universal democratiser of information about people often walled-off in collection management systems (CMS).
Once unique identifiers for people are integrated in collection management systems, these may be shared with the global collections and research community using the new Darwin Core terms, recordedByID or identifiedByID along with the well-known, yet text-based terms, recordedBy or identifiedBy.
Approximately 120 datasets published through GBIF now make use of these identifier-based terms, which are additionally resolved in Bionomia every few weeks alongside co-curated attributions newly made there. This roundtrip of data – emerging as ambiguous strings of text from the source, affixed with resolvable identifiers elsewhere, absorbed into the source as new digital annotations, and then re-emerging with these fresh, identifier-based enhancements – is an exciting approach to co-manage collections data.
Disambiguation work is particularly important in recognising contributors who have been historically marginalized. For example, gender bias in specimen data can be seen in the case of Wilmatte Porter Cockerell, a prolific collector of botanical, entomological and fossil specimens. Cockerell’s collections are often attributed to her husband as he was also a prolific collector and the two frequently collected together.
On some labels, her identity is further obscured as she is simply recorded as “& wife” (see example on GBIF). Since Wilmatte Cockerell was her husband’s second wife, it can take some effort to confirm if a specimen can be attributed to her and not her husband’s first wife, who was also involved in collecting specimens. By ensuring that Cockerell is disambiguated and her contributions are appropriately attributed, the impact of her work becomes more visible enabling her work to be properly and fairly credited.
Thus, disambiguation work helps to not only give credit where credit is due, thereby making data about people and their biodiversity collections more findable, but it also creates an inclusive and representative narrative of the landscape of people involved with scientific knowledge creation, identification, and preservation.
A future – once thought to be a dream – where the complete scientific output of a person is connected as Linked Open Data (LOD) is now.
Both the tools and infrastructure are at our disposal and the demand is palpable. All institutions can contribute to this movement by sharing data that include unique identifiers for the people in their collections. We recommend that institutions develop a strategy, perhaps starting with employees and curatorial staff, people of local significance, or those who have been marginalized, and to additionally capitalize on existing disambiguation activities elsewhere. This will have local utility and will make a significant, long-term impact.
The more we participate in these activities, the greater chance we will uncover positive feedback loops, which will act to lighten the workload for all involved, including our future selves!
The disambiguation of people in collections is an ongoing process, but it becomes easier with practice. We also encourage collections staff to consider modifying their existing workflows and policies to include identifiers for people at the outset, when new data are generated or when new specimens are acquired.
There is more work required at the global level to define, update, and ratify standards and best practices to help accelerate data exchange or roundtrips of this information; there is room for all contributions. Thankfully, there is a diverse, welcoming, energetic, and international community involved in these activities.
We see a bright future for you, our collections, and our research products – well within reach – when the identities of people play a pivotal role in the construction of a knowledge graph of life.
A good start is also to check Bionomia to find out what metrics exist now for your institution or collection and affiliated people.
The next steps for collections: 7 objectives that can help to disambiguate your institutions’ collection:
Groom Q, Bräuchler C, Cubey RWN, Dillen M, Huybrechts P, Kearney N, Klazenga N, Leachman S, Paul DL, Rogers H, Santos J, Shorthouse DP, Vaughan A, von Mering S, Haston EM (2022) The disambiguation of people names in biological collections. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e86089. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e86089
Soil and its macrofauna are an integral part of many ecosystems, playing an important role in decomposition and nutrient recycling. However, soil biodiversity remains understudied globally.
To help fill this gap and reveal the diversity of soil fauna in Hong Kong, a team of scientists from The Chinese University of Hong Kong initiated a citizen science project involving universities, non-governmental organisations and secondary school students and teachers.
“Involving citizens as part of the new knowledge generation process is important in promoting the understanding of biodiversity. Training younger-generation citizens to learn about biodiversity is of utmost importance and crucial to conservation engagement”
Working side by side with university academics, taxonomists and non-governmental organisation members, students from 21 schools/institutes were recruited to collect soil animals near their campusesfor a year and record their observations.
Between October 2019 and October 2020, they monitored and sampled species across 21 sites of urban and semi-natural habitats in Hong Kong, collecting a total of 3,588 individual samples. Their efforts yielded 150 soil macrofaunal species, identified as arthropods (including insects, spiders, centipedes and millipedes), worms, and snails.
Most often, the students found millipedes (23 out of 150 species). They even helped identify two millipede species that are new to Hong Kong’s fauna: Monographis queenslandica and Alloproctoides remyi. The former is usually found in Australia – the researchers suggest it might have been introduced to the area many decades ago from Queensland or vice versa – and the latter has been observed in Reunion and Mauritius.
Millipedes like these two species can accelerate litter decomposition and regulate the soil carbon and phosphorus cycling, while earthworms can modify the soil structure and regulate water and organic matter cycling.
“Before the beginning of this project, the understanding of soil biodiversity in Hong Kong, including the understanding of its contained millipede species, was inadequate”
the researchers write in their paper.
Now, they believe that the identified macrofauna species and their 646 DNA barcodes have established a solid foundation for further research in soil biodiversity in the area.
Their project also serves an additional purpose. Unlike most conventional scientific studies, which are usually carried out by the government, non-governmental organisations or academics in universities alone, this study utilised a citizen science approach through creating a big community engaged with biodiversity. In doing so, it helped educate the public and raise awareness on the use of basic science techniques in understanding local biodiversity.
So, it may have inspired a new generation of future scientists: some students started millipede cultures in their own schools, and one school used the millipede breeding model to participate in a science and technology competition.
This study is a proof that local institutes and high schools can unite together with research teams at universities and perform scientific work, the study’s authors believe.
It “has raised public awareness and potentially opens up opportunities for the general public to engage in scientific research in the future.”
The team hopes that their approach could inspire future biodiversity sampling and monitoring studies to engage more citizen scientists.
So WL, Ting KW, Lai SY, Huang EYY, Ma Y, Chong TK, Yip HY, Lee HT, Cheung BCT, Chan MK, Consortium HKSB, Nong W, Law MMS, Lai DYF, Hui JHL (2022) Revealing the millipede and other soil-macrofaunal biodiversity in Hong Kong using a citizen science approach. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e82518. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e82518
A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes hidden under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes of Ecuador. The discovery was made official in a study published in the journal ZooKeys. The new snakes, which are small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking, were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics.
Believe or not, graveyards are also land of the living. In the Andes of Ecuador, they are inhabited by a fossorial group of snakes belonging to the genus Atractus. These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world (there are now 150 species known globally), but few people have seen one or even heard about their existence. This is probably because these serpents are shy and generally rare, and they remain hidden throughout most of their lives. Additionally, most of them inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices. In this particular case, however, the new ground snakes where found living among crypts.
The discovery of the three new species took place rather fortuitously and in places where one would probably not expect to find these animals. The Discovery Ground Snake (Atractus discovery) was found hidden underground in a small graveyard in a remote cloud forest town in southeastern Ecuador, whereas the two other new species were found besides an old church and in a small school. All of this seems to suggest that, at least in the Andes, new species of snakes might be lurking just around the corner.
Unfortunately, the coexistence of ground snakes and villagers in the same town is generally bad news for the snakes. The study by Arteaga reports that the majority of the native habitat of the new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they are usually killed on sight.
Diego Piñán, a teacher of the town where one of the new reptiles was found, says: “when I first arrived at El Chaco in 2013, I used to see many dead snakes on the road; others where hit by machetes or with stones. Now, after years of talking about the importance of snakes, both kids and their parents, while still wary of snakes, now appreciate them and protect them.” Fortunately, Diego never threw away the dead snakes he found: he preserved them in alcohol-filled jars and these were later used by Arteaga to describe the species as new to science.
In addition to teaching about the importance of snakes, the process of naming species is important to create awareness about the existence of a new animal and its risk of extinction. In this particular case, two of the new snakes are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.
The discovery process also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect wildlife.
Atractus discovery was named to honor The Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grants initiative, a program seeking to foster scientific understanding for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth and beyond. The grant program supports researchers and explorers from around the world in their quest to mitigate climate change, prevent the extinction of species and cultures, and ensure the health of the Earth and its inhabitants.
Atractus zgap was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. The ZGAP grant program supports the fieldwork of young scientists who are eager to implement and start conservation projects in their home countries.
Atractus michaelsabini was named in honor of a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin. Through the conservation organization Re:wild, the Sabin family has supported field research of threatened reptiles and has protected thousands of acres of critical habitat throughout the world.
“Naming species is at the core of biology”, says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”
“The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project,” says Arteaga. “Now, thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP, we have already started the process of establishing a nature reserve to protect the ground snakes. This action would not have been possible without first unveiling the existence of these unique and cryptic reptiles, even if it meant momentarily disturbing the peace of the dead in the graveyard where the lived.”
Arteaga A, Quezada A, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (2022) Leaving no stone unturned: three additional new species of Atractus ground snakes (Serpentes, Colubridae) from Ecuador discovered using a biogeographical approach. ZooKeys 1121: 175-210. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.89539
What makes this species so charismatic and loved by aquarists and ichthyologists?
I already spoke about my experience as an aquarist from an early age, where the qualities of the species of the Astronotus genus, known as Oscars are highlighted.
Different varieties and color patterns have been obtained from them through selective breeding, or genetic manipulation, which are called living modified organisms (LMOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
However, the true lovers of nature, the aquarians of the “Biotope Aquarium” movement and the like, prefer pure specimens to manipulated or artificially modified ones. This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet.
For ichthyologists, it is remarkably interesting and at the same time very challenging to study a genus like Astronotus, which already has only three described species (Astronotus ocellatus, A. cassiprinnis and A. mikoljii).
This is an unusual situation, which, as we have reported, requires an integrative approach and the work and experience of different specialists for its study. With all certainty, as in the case of Mikolji’s Oscar, other species of the genus Astronotus remain to be studied and described, and we hope that we will have the fortune to participate with our experience in these new works.
Local people have long known this species. What role does it have in their lives?
It is important to clarify that Astronotus mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it was known by the common name of Oscar and scientific name of Astronotus ocellatus, or, to a lesser degree, as Astronotus cassiprinnis.
Much less is it a new species for the nine thousand-year-old indigenous ethnic groups that share their world with the habitat of this fish, who baptized it with some 14 different names, known in their languages as mijsho (Kariña), boisikuajaba (Warao), hácho (Pumé = Yaruro), phadeewa, jadaewa (Ye’Kuana = Makiritare), perewa, parawa (Eñepá = Panare), yawirra (Kúrrim = Kurripako), kohukohurimï, kohokohorimï, owënawë kohoromï” (Yanomami = Yanomamï), eba (Puinave), Itapukunda (Kurripako), uan (Tucano).
Hence, the importance of scientific names, since the same species can have multiple common names, in the same language or in multiple languages.
It is important to note that very few studies that describe new species for science include the common names of the species, as given by the indigenous ethnic groups or natives of the regions, where the species live.
This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In our studies, in the plains of Orinoco from 30 years ago, we were able to verify its consumption, as well as high gastronomic value, due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture.
However, due to my imprint as an aquarist, I have not wanted to consume it on the different occasions that it was offered to me, because it is very difficult to eat the beloved pets that we had in our childhood.
Why is this fish important to people and to ecosystems?
It is especially important to highlight that the Astronotus mikoljii species plays a very important role in the ecosystem, due to its biological and ecological background.
Although it can feed from different sources, it is a fundamentally carnivorous species, and therefore, it “controls” other species in the ecosystem.
Without Mikolji’s Oscar, the aquatic ecosystem would lose one of its fundamental links and the delicate balance of its functioning, because the species it feeds on could increase their populations uncontrollably, becoming veritable pests. This would put in great danger the entire future of the aquatic ecosystem of the Orinoco River basin and the permanence of other species of ecological importance.
In addition, it would surely affect other species used by man, both those of commercial importance (sold as food or as ornamental species), and for the subsistence fishing of native and indigenous inhabitants.
Mikolji’s Oscar, although a carnivorous species, also has its natural predators, for example piranhas and other predatory fish. For this reason, it evolved with an ocellus, or false eye, at the base of the caudal fin, to confuse its predators and guarantee its survival. Obviously, this species will be compromised if we don’t learn about it, use its populations wisely and preserve it in the long term.